Archive for January 7, 2009

Garden Of Delights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 7, 2009 by dcairns

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Hitchcock Year starts here!

Every Wednesday, saving attack by enraged chaffinches or high-heeled nun attacks, I’ll be blogging about a different Hitchcock feature, working through his career in order. An arbitrary decision makes the number of feature films 52, one for each week of the year, so it should work OK. I reserve the right to sometimes use the film du semaine as a mere springboard to other discussions, but the principle still stands.

I don’t really approve of discounting short films, part-works and TV… well, maybe the part-works (ELSTREE CALLING can’t really be considered as a Hitchcock film, since if the role of the director has any meaning, it should involves balancing and aligning all the various elements of a film, which can only be done from a position of godlike supremacy, and not from amongst a jostling scrummage of hired hands), but the concept of cramming Hitch into a year is so attractive I’m abandoning my reservations and jumping in. To make the math work out I also have to skip over his lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, for the obvious reason that I can’t find any way to see it.

Hitchcock turns 110 this year, and his birthday falls on a Thursday, which is when my column THE FORGOTTEN goes to press over at THE AUTEURS’ NOTEBOOK, so I thought I’d do Hitchcock days on Wednesday, so that when August 13th comes around, my piece on NOTORIOUS will be along the day before to sort of get you all in the mood.

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I watched Hitchcock’s first film, properly, all the way through, for the first time, in the company of my best friend Robert, who’s recently been mysteriously struck deaf. As his ten-year-old son remarked, “It’s a chance to catch up with your viewing of silent films, dad,” so we took the little fellow at his word and buckled down to Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN (which had German intertitles the last time I watched it) and THE PLEASURE GARDEN — which was sub-intertitled in some unknown Nordic language, resulting in this cheeky end title ~

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Not too much to report on this one, a silly melodrama, directed with total confidence but only a few moments of inspiration. The decadent opening sequence, showing a bunch of very Germanic lechers (Hitchcock shot the film in studios in Hitlerville Munich) ogling the girls at the music hall, seemed to be the stuff that excited the director most. I think perhaps too much has been made of Hitch turning his brunette leading lady into a blonde — she’s only blonde when onstage, wearing her wig. But there’s a hint of obsessions to come, when a stage door johnny/pickpocket, eyes a girl’s handbag ~

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CRIME-CAM!  A little iris effect encircles the target, before his slithering fingers make their furtive foray into its moneyed interior. The POV shot is associated with crime and illicit desire even at this early point.

Otherwise, man of the match is Miles Mander, the living hypnotic corpse, who impressed us no end with his manly physique. So rivettingly slender is this walking anatomy specimen that when a bullet is fired point-blank into his abdomen, I fully expected it to pass harmlessly between his ribs, leaving him unscathed. It must have taken all Hitchcock’s youthful prowess to animate this bag of bones and get a performance from it. I was watching carefully for any sign of wires, but didn’t spot any. Maybe he’s pneumatically operated, except where would they blow the air?

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Mander, out in the colonies somewhere, pointlessly murders his native lover (she was attempting suicide at the time — why didn’t he just let her?) and is then persecuted by her phantasmal apparition which despite being fully transparent still looks more solid than him. Cary Grant hated backlighting because the illumination permeated his ears and made them glow like electric ornaments. Miles Mander has that problem with his entire person.

MM’s career flourished when sound came in, because by using his voice he could remain apparent to the audience when he turned sideways, which had not been possible in the silent era. Mander is actually the only actor you can see if you watch a cinema screen edge-on: he appears as an area of screen slightly thinner than the rest. It was a constant struggle for him to remain plump enough to actually reflect enough photons to appear on film: if his concentration slipped he might flicker out of visibility altogether. While other stars were admired for their presence, Manders mostly had absence.

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On one occasion, the emaciated thespian urged Hitchcock to shoot him through a sort of jam jar, the first anamorphic lens, to make his torso more-so. But Hitch declined to use a photographic tool that would make his actresses look like himself in drag, and told Manders to pad out his skeleton with tissue paper. Manders did one better, replacing his bone marrow with cotton wool, which bulked him up sufficiently to become fully three-dimensional, and the rest is cinema history.